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Well, maybe Mason, Texas isn't the tennis capital of the world. Maybe it isn't even the most tennis-oriented town in the U.S. But what it is is the dad-burned most unusual tennis town you'll ever see.
Mason and its 2,000 population are set square in the middle of the Texas cattle country. At first glance it doesn't look much different from any 300 other similar Texas cattle towns. It's got a town square built around a courthouse that's shaded by big oak and pecan trees, under which the old men sit in the afternoon and whittle or play dominoes. Around the square are the usual grocery and mercantile stores, and a drugstore with a marble-topped soda fountain. There's a lot of old homes, mostly built of limestone and granite. There's the jail, built in 1860, which they call the Crowbar Hotel. There are saddle shops and the kind of caf� where everyone goes for coffee in the morning, and a business that buys pecans and deer hides. Amos Kidd has got the only barbershop in town, and he closes every day from noon until one. And, of course, everyone wears boots and Levi's and Western hats. And everyone drives a pickup. But there the similarity ends and tennis takes over.
All over Texas there are pickup trucks with gun racks in the cabs. They've got gun racks in the pickups in Mason, too, but many of them hold tennis rackets. And looped over the gearshifts are sweat-bands. The drivers will be wearing boots, but somewhere in those pickups will be a pair of tennis shoes, and in the glove compartment a can or two of tennis balls—because you never know, in Mason, when someone might hail you down and say, "Let's go play a set or two."
They've got 23 tennis courts in Mason, which works out to roughly one court for every 80 people—men, women and children. It's hard to tell how many courts they've got in New York, say, or Los Angeles or San Antonio, but a city of one million would have to have around 12,500 courts to be in the same ratio. There probably aren't many places like that around.
Every summer the town runs a tennis tournament—the Mason Open—that has gotten completely out of hand. It began in 1967 with 146 entries, which is fair enough for a town that size, and it didn't strain the town or its facilities overmuch. But every year the number of entries kept growing. By 1973 there were 350 players in the tournament, and matches were being played until three and four o'clock in the morning. That was the year they blocked off the streets around the square and set up courts for the early rounds. The old asphalt gave the ball some strange spins, but no one complained. No one ever seems to complain about tennis in Mason, which may be part of the trouble, because this year they had over 1,100 entries. They came from 65 towns, and there was one player from Mexico City and another from Australia. It must be admitted that the Australian was going to college in the U.S., but his appearance led Lee Graham, who is the high school principal and one of the factotums of the Mason Tennis Association, to comment, "From now on we're going to call this thing the Mason International Invitational Open." It also caused him to comment about the number of entries. "I don't really know what we're going to do if this thing gets much bigger. We've got about all we can say grace over now, and there doesn't seem to be any stopping it."
It's difficult to explain the popularity of the Mason tournament. It may be simply friendliness. Mason has only 67 motel and hotel rooms, which won't quite handle that kind of visitor flow. Early in June the 400 members of the Mason Tennis Association begin organizing the tournament. Every member is on a committee of some kind—the housing committee, the transportation committee, the concession stand committee, the officials committee. They need a lot of committees. For instance, as the applications come in, the housing committee begins looking for lodging for those entrants requesting it. Almost everyone in Mason—even some of the non-players—is willing to take in a visitor.
The nice thing about it is that the lodgings are free, which may partially explain the Mason phenomenon. Some towns might try to exploit an influx of better than half their population. But they don't do that in Mason. The caf�s don't raise prices, the motels don't raise prices, the concession stand sells soft drinks for 15� and hamburgers for half a dollar. At the Hill Country Inn, the place to stay, eight or nine people are allowed to bunk in each room, which is probably against some fire ordinance, but nobody minds. In some of the private homes they jam them in as best they can, especially junior players. It's not an uncommon sight to go into someone's home and see 20 kids scattered about the place in sleeping bags. And they give them breakfast the next morning, too.
The townspeople provide a lot of free transportation. A good many of the matches are played on private courts, and some of these are on ranches eight and 10 miles out of town over winding dirt roads that a visitor might have a little trouble finding. The courts are donated, of course. But more than that, homes are turned into clubhouses where the players can dress and shower and cool off after a match. On Corky Eckert's ranch, even the cattle seem interested in tennis. The fence comes right up to the side of the court, and while the matches are going on, cows or pigs will come wandering up and stand there watching. They don't follow the ball back and forth, but they do seem fascinated by the goings-on. Corky's court has one of the fastest surfaces in town, but he won't change it because sometimes dances are held there, and he says he's trying for the best compromise between a tennis court and a dance floor.
But that still doesn't quite explain why 1,100 people should go to a small Texas town to play in a tournament when there is any one of a dozen others to choose from. Hospitality and friendliness are obviously part of it, but Bill Bode, whose wife Frances is one of the co-chairwomen of the tournament (they don't say chairperson in Mason), believes it has to do with something else. "Over the years, people around Texas have come to associate tennis and Mason with each other, and when they come up here they know they'll be playing some of the best amateur players in their division. Everybody comes up here to have a good time and visit, but they also get to play a lot of tennis, and they go at it very seriously."
Which is fairly easy to believe. There are 210 other high schools in Mason's state division. In the last seven years Mason has won 15 of a possible 28 championships. At the regional level, over the same period, Mason has won 79 out of 81 matches. Lee Graham says, "The other players don't exactly lie down and die when someone from Mason tosses his racket cover out on the court, but it does seem to have a pretty big psychological effect. A couple of years ago we had a few kids hurt, and a couple of our track boys who'd never played much tennis came and asked if they could practice on their own and try and help. Well, we were just starting in to the district playoffs, and we don't have that many kids, so we said, 'Sure, go ahead.' Well, we ended up entering them as our No. 2 doubles team, and be darned if they didn't make it through district. They couldn't play much, but they just kept going and knocking that ball back. Then they won regional. Well, the day before we were to go up to state I see old Duke on the school grounds, and he says, 'Mr. Graham, I'm scared.' This was Duke Hooten; he and Cole Leifeste were the two track boys. I said, 'Duke, there's nothing to be scared of. Those teams you'll run into up there won't know you can't play. All they'll know is that you're from Mason, and they'll be the ones who'll be scared. Just go out there and act confident and make use of that advantage. Watch and see what happens.' Well, you know, those two old boys got to the finals in state, and neither one of them had been playing six months. Course they were both good athletes, but I sincerely believe if they'd been from some other town, they'd of never got by district."